In 1858, James Hector, a surgeon and geologist on the Palliser expedition to western Canada, was kicked in the chest by his horse. Things looked bad. A grave was dug. Unable to speak or move, he was in danger of being buried alive, but managed to wink at one of his companions. He was saved and went on to become a top government scientist in New Zealand. The pass the party had been struggling to reach in its exploration of new routes for the Canadian Pacific Railway became known as Kicking Horse Pass.
Drive the Trans-Canada highway from Calgary to Vancouver and about 200 kilometres in you'll crest the pass near the town of Golden, close to the Banff and Yoho national parks. In front of you lies Glacier National Park and to your left is Kootenay National Park. That's a lot of mountains, a lot of wilderness and a lot of snow.
The snow comes in from the Pacific, to the west. As it travels to Kicking Horse mountain, 14 kilometres from Golden, it becomes much drier than the snow in Whistler, closer to the coast. Kicking Horse snow is more like crisp champagne bubbles. For us, landing in seven metres of the stuff is the perfect start to our "powder-highway" trip, for resorts in this quiet corner of British Columbia specialise in one thing: powder snow.
"This is my home hill," says ski guide Brenna Donaldson as we sit in the Golden Eagle gondola heading to Kicking Horse's CPR Ridge. "I really like the aggressive terrain. There's still stuff here I haven't skied and which scares me s***less."
Fear seems a reasonable reaction as we peer into the depths of Bowl Over, one of the four bowls that make up the resort's 1,113 hectares of skiable terrain. The steep drop in leads to powder-laden slopes peppered with fir trees. Visibility is poor and there are few tracks to follow. Reaching flatter ground, we career through trees, before a short hike takes us to the top of Double Header, an infamous black run. Kicking Horse makes no bones about being a resort for advanced skiers - 60 per cent of the terrain is for experts only. But beginners aren't ignored: wide, peaceful pistes stretch halfway up the mountain and it's almost impossible to get lost - all runs lead back to the same base.
As the light dims over Golden and huge trucks cruise the snow-packed main street, blues music leaks out of the Golden Taps pub, and steak and ribs sizzle at the Kicking Horse Grill. Certainly some things have changed since Hector's time.
Our next stop, Revelstoke, in the Selkirk mountains 100 kilometres west, is all about trees, which rear out of the steep slopes in rows like snow ghosts. It is Canada's youngest resort, having opened in 2007, and skirts North America's most vertical descent, which drops into two bowls, north and south. From the top of the Stoke Chair, we make a steep 15-minute climb before dropping into North Bowl.
The resort of Revelstoke is a one-stop shop, with accommodation, ski hire and restaurants all in one place at the base station. With more rustic accommodation, eateries and great flapjacks at the Modern Bakehouse, the town of Revelstoke (population 7,000) is a short drive away.
We reach Nelson, in the Kootenay region, after dark. It's a town of 10,000, of whom 3,500 own season passes to the local resort of Whitewater, which has three chairlifts, three steep slopes laced with trees and one large lodge serving local specialities.
"We're not a resort for beginners," general manager Anne Pigeon says unapologetically. "We're keeping it real. It's powder, pure and simple." The snow here is so light and ethereal, locals call it "Kootenay cold smoke".
On Red (the resort's other summit is "Granite") the powder gods shine on us: there are no queues for the lift and no maze of runs; from the top, you ski down pretty much anywhere you want. Double-diamond black runs litter both mountains, and low visibility adds a heart-stopping thrill to the experience.
As with Whitewater, the resort thrives on its community, the town of Rossland, with cafes, yoga classes and snowboard shops lending an arty vibe. And, as with Whitewater and Nelson, Red and Rossland share a no-nonsense approach to skiing. No intricate piste networks, snow canons, or hordes of people; no pretty chalets piste-side selling vin chaud. Just more snow than you ever dreamed of - and a lift to access it.
Guardian News & Media
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